A myHT Fortress

Monday, March 29, 2010

Who Is This? -- A Homily for Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11

Luke 23

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Who is this? Jesus had raised Lazarus recently, and a big crowd was gathering to see Him. Women and children gathered along with various men, cheering, chanting, and waving palm branches of victory for Jesus as He entered the city. The minds of the faithful were filled with images from history, like Solomon’s coronation when he rode through Jerusalem on a donkey, or the rededication of the Temple on that first Chanukah, with palm branches waving. Yes, the crowd travelling with Jesus as He entered the city knew who He is, but the people of Jerusalem looked out their windows and down the streets and said, “Who is this?!”

The faithful reply: “This is the Prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” Not just any prophet, mind you. THE Prophet – the One spoken of by Moses. The ultimate prophet who is different than all others. This Prophet not only speaks the Word of God – He IS the Word of God!

“Who is this?” The children know! Leave it to the faith of little children. They chant, “Hosanna,” a word that means, “Save us!” These little ones know that Jesus is the Savior, and they pray that He will do just that!

The question, “Who is this?” can keep popping up, all through Holy Week, and especially on Good Friday. On this Sunday of the Passion, we hear Jesus suffer through this phony trial and its false accusations, and we see Him suffer beyond human understanding. And it all stems from understandings—or misunderstandings—of who He is.

Ask Pontius Pilate this question, “Who is Jesus?” and he’s not sure what to answer. Pilate is confused. This obscure rabbi seems harmless enough, but the chief priests are so riled up! Pilate at one point even says to Jesus, “Who are you?!” Pilate has enough sense to call Jesus a “righteous man,” but is in the dark about His divinity.

Herod is not much better. He might answer, “Who is this?” with something along the lines of “a magician” or “wonder-worker.” Herod has heard all about the miracles, and wants something from a Vegas show by David Copperfield or Penn and Teller.

Barabbas? He’ll tell you who this is! Barnabbas would say this is some loser who ticked off the wrong people. But it doesn’t matter because the bottom line is he’s free and that guy from Galilee died instead.

“Who is this?” Simon of Cyrene did not know – at least not then. All he knew was that some Roman soldier grabbed him out of a crowd along the road and forced him to carry the man’s cross. That was criminal’s work! Simon’s first impression might have been that this bloody mess of a man was a violent criminal, but He would come to know better.

But what of the women? “Who is this?” Women of Jerusalem, some of whom may have been from that Palm Sunday crowd, gathered along the Way of Sorrows, and wept and wailed for this innocent man – this good and gentle teacher – this Prophet. They recognize Jesus to be from God, and are devastated that He is being treated this way.

“Who is this?” The criminals had no clue at the start of it all. These two were marching off with Jesus, and just knew that He had a good-sized mob mad at Him. So they joined in the jeers and name-calling. Although later, one of them repents, and recognizes that this is no criminal. This is Jesus, the Prophet, from Nazareth of Galilee.

“Who is this?” Joseph of Arimathea was crushed. Devastated. The Man he had thought to be the Messiah now hung dead and limp on that horrifying cross. Tears would well up in his eyes as he gently carried the remains with Nicodemus the short distance to the new tomb. This was supposed to be the Christ. He was to be the King, the Son of David. But now what?! Joseph did not know what to think.

What about you? What do you answer when someone asks, “Who is this?” Maybe they don’t ask you directly. Maybe they remain quite on the topic of Jesus Christ and faith. But do you give an answer anyway? Yes you do. But is it an answer of faith?

Many of these answers from the various people involved in the Passion of our Lord are all partially right. But partially right answers do not open the kingdom of heaven. Hell is full of people who were partially right about Jesus.

Do you confess Jesus as Lord and Savior? Or like Peter are you quiet—or even loud—in denying that you even know Him? Do you look at the crucifix and see something hopeless and a sign of defeat? Or do you see that image as precious and marvelous, witnessing the amazing and boundless love of God for you?

“Who is this?” Are your actions and words witnessing to others that Jesus has taken away your sin and transformed you? Or do they bear witness to a life that enjoys all the devil, the world, and your sinful self have to offer?

Repent! Repent of refusing to confess who Jesus really is, by word and deed. Repent of not speaking up to defend the faith and clarify to others about our Redeemer suffering and dying for us. Repent of living like everyone else who has not known Jesus.

“Who is this?” This is Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true Man, born of the Virgin Mary. This is Jesus Christ, the Lord. Having triumphantly entered Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday, He gave His life on that cross for you. He suffered and died for you. He carried out His saving work to rescue you from sin, death, and hell. This is Jesus, not just any prophet – THE Prophet, the Word made flesh who dwelt among us. God Himself living, dying, and rising for you!

Our dear Lord has done all this for you, that you can be forever His. He saves you from all the misunderstandings or partially right answers. He gives you the knowledge unto salvation of who He is and what He does to make you His own and save you.

“Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” “Who is this?” This is Jesus, God the Son, who is the Savior. He won that salvation on the cross for you, and today He comes, gentle and riding on bread and wine to bring you the forgiveness, life, and salvation that He won. Amen!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Wasteful: A Homily on Luke 15:11-32 for Lent 4

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In recent years, it has become fashionable to call him “the Lost Son.” That is a fine label, but we hear this morning the story of the Prodigal Son. While it is the same person, there is a difference in these names. In everyday English, those that actually uses the word “prodigal” often use it to mean “lost” or “runaway.” But that is not what it means. It means: “wasteful!”

Today we see a wasteful situation all around. It begins with the younger son approaching his father. He basically tells him, “Dad, we’d all be better off if you were dead. I wish I was an orphan and could just have my inheritance.” It breaks his father’s heart, but the dad is so kind and merciful that he says, “Well, I’m not dead, but I can give you your inheritance early.” And so he does. And so the son takes off for another country, where he squanders all his wealth on wine, women, and song. He has many friends as long as he has the money for the life of loose, immoral partying.

Where does his wasteful lifestyle get him: in the deepest depths of poverty. For this wasteful son, when the money dries up, it just so happens that the economy does too. A famine hits, and there is no food. He is a foreigner with no money and no food. He seems hopeless. He accepted the most humiliating work. For a young Jewish man, tending pigs was as low as you could get. And he even began to look at the pig slop as appealing food!

Pretty easy to see how this younger son is wasteful. Finally, as he is at his lowest point he realizes how wrong he has been. He is repentant. He rehearses a speech about how sinful and wasteful he’s been, hoping to be hired on as a servant at his father’s house.

All these months have passed, and the father still looks for his wasteful son. He sees him in the distance, and runs out to greet him. He embraces his younger son in unquestioning love and forgiveness. He welcomes his son, not even letting him finish his repentance speech. And he throws a feast. He celebrates his younger son returning. He celebrates forgiveness and a new start on life.

But here is where the older son enters in. He has a fit! “Dad!” he cries, “How could you!? That’s so wasteful! There he went, wasting your money on sinful, immoral living, and you just let him walk back in?! He threw it all away and you welcome him?!”

How often have you heard this story and stood shoulder to shoulder with the older brother. “At least I haven’t wasted my money on booze and brothels!” you may have said. “What a terrible sinner! At least that older brother stayed and did his duty, loyal to his father and a better steward of the family wealth.”

But do you see it? His terrible attitude? He moans and complains that his father is being wasteful in showing forgiveness and mercy. He claims the father is wasteful in his steadfast love that endures forever. As an individual, if you stand in judgment over someone, you are engaging in the same prideful sin as the older brother. The younger brother was indeed sinning earlier in the story, but he ends up repenting. The older son is obstinate in a refusal to forgive and stands in judgment at the end of the story, self-righteous and thinking of himself more highly than his younger brother. He remains in his sin!

Repent! You sit here and have been thinking and thanking God that you don’t squander your money on this kind of hedonism. But, like the elder son, you remain a conceited sinner who judges God as wasteful in His mercy on other sinners.

Repent like the younger brother, realizing that you have no good in you, and don’t deserve to be a son of the Father. And in His amazing, so-called “wasteful” mercy and forgiveness, He claims you as His own.

Our dear Savior suffered all, and died on His cross that this “wastefulness” of God might be extended to all. He took on your sin and died the death to punish your wastefulness. He removes all that guilt, so that our loving heavenly Father runs out to greet you again and again. With each and every repentance that He gives you, He embraces you in His mercy and builds you up in His forgiveness and love.

The “wasteful” Father gives the wasteful son a beautiful robe that he has neither earned nor deserved. It covers him in his father’s love with a wonderful gift! He also places a signet ring on his hand. That ring was a sign of belonging, acceptance, and the family name. Such rings had the family name or sign on them, having the authority of the name.

At Holy Baptism, you were covered with the robe of Christ’s perfect righteousness. All your flaws and imperfections, all your sinful wastefulness is covered by Christ. At Baptism you also had the name of God given to you. You were sealed in His name, witnessing to the belonging and acceptance that the Father in heaven gave you. By the authority of His name, you are a forgiven, newborn child in His family.

Thanks be to God that He has a holy “wastefulness” that is outrageously generous in His love and mercy. His merciful “wastefulness” removes your guilt and sin, that you may always be welcomed in His embrace and be gathered to His feast. And that is exactly what He does – He gathers you to His feast, where He feeds you His body and blood – body and blood that were given and shed for you. Some would challenge the Lord and say that was a waste, but we know better. The truth is that our dear Lord Jesus is giving Himself for your forgiveness, life, and salvation, and that is no waste at all! Amen.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sent & Preached; Heard and Believed: A Homily for St. Patrick's Day

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[I bring you greetings in the Name of the Lord from your brothers and sisters in Christ at St. John’s Lutheran Church & School in Chicago, as well as from Higher Things, a Recognized Service Organization of Synod. HT serves youth through various media, radio podcasts, retreats, and annual conferences.]

About 20 years ago, I was a pre-sem student, sitting in those pews – usually about the seventh row back, pulpit side. It was here at Concordia that I learned that we Lutherans commemorate various saints’ days. For some, this seemed to be strange and unusual; why would we focus on these people, and not the Lord? But they had it all wrong. A commemoration of a saint is not about that individual; it IS all about Jesus!

This morning we don’t have to be Irish or even wear green in order to celebrate. Today is a festival of our Lord, thanking and praising God for the missionary work through which thousands were evangelized, and rejoice to remember Patrick and say of the beloved bishop: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?”

These words were so appropriate for Patrick, a Christian youth from Scotland who had been kidnapped. He now was living among pagans in Ireland, tending flocks, serving a cruel master who happened to be a Druid high priest. The people of Ireland had not yet heard the Gospel. Patrick spent hours every day as he watched over these flocks, praying and meditating on the love of God, not knowing how the Lord was preparing him to one day shepherd that region – that country!

The Lord was gracious to Patrick and blessed him with escape. He fled 200 miles on foot to a sea port, and was able to return home to Britain. Yet our Lord Christ was still forming Patrick to be the future pastor of Ireland. A life of receiving God’s gifts of Gospel and Eucharist, and responding in prayer continued. And the Lord placed this thought, this understanding from Romans 10 before Patrick.

“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?”

Sometime around the year 433, the Bishop of Rome sent Bishop Patrick and a number of companions as a great mission to Ireland. The people of that land had not believed. They had never heard. There had been no preaching for no one had been sent. But for the next 60 years, the Lord used Patrick and his fellow missionaries to preach the Gospel and deliver Christ’s gifts. They were sent. They preached. The people heard and believed.

And you sit here saying, “Thanks for the history lesson. So what? How does that apply to my life?”

The Lord still uses the same tools to deliver Jesus to you. You still won’t believe if you don’t hear, and you won’t hear if no pastor is preaching, and the pastor won’t preach if he’s not sent. Jesus doesn’t just wave a Harry Potter wand and *poof* He’s in your heart. No! He uses His means, and St. Paul tells us this morning about the means of the proclaimed Word. Hand in hand with Baptism, the preaching of the Gospel is basic to faith. It is vital – necessary – and a joy to receive Jesus in His Word.

The Lord places pastors in your life to bring that Word to you. He nurtured Patrick as he grew up in Britain. And He then took the young shepherd to later tend the flock of the people of Ireland. Bishop Patrick was sent and preached, and the Irish heard and believed. Yes! By the work of the Spirit, they were brought to faith! “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

So what do we celebrate today? Green beer? The casting out of snakes from the Emerald Isle? The accomplishments and legendary miracles of an ancient pastor whose remains now rest in the Cathedral at Down, Ireland? No. Not at all.

Today, our Lord blesses us to hear His Word and celebrate the Work and Word of Jesus, who sent Patrick to preach to Ireland, and now sends our pastors to preach to us, to form and feed faith that we may live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. Even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true. Amen.

The Rev. Rich Heinz, Pastor
St. John’s Lutheran Church & School,
Chicago, IL

Monday, March 15, 2010

Losing Your Muchness and Believing Impossible Things

Warning: Spoilers follow.

“You were much more... muchier. You've lost your muchness,” laments the Mad Hatter to Alice in the newest version of Lewis Carrol’s “Alice in Wonderland.” The film briefly introduces Alice as a child, then skips over ten years to what is to be her engagement party. Alice once again sees the White Rabbit from her “dreams” and again falls down the hole, drinks the bottle labeled “Drink me” to shrink, and eats the cake to grow large, encounters the “Red Queen” (Queen of Hearts), Knave of Hearts, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and all the others from her childhood adventure.

However, upon discovering that she will have to take the vorpal sword and slay the Jabberwocky, the grown Alice must dig deep inside and find the child that she was – the little girl who could indeed be muchier and defeat this monster, and therefore defeat the wicked queen.

Once she realizes she is not merely dreaming, the young adult Alice is convinced that killing the Jabberwocky is impossible. “I don’t slay,” she maintains, before the caterpillar points out some obvious wisdom she already had, in her deep, “inner child.”

A realization comes over her: “Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” And with her belief comes the strength, courage, and muchness that she needs to slay the monster.

While the entire film celebrates that people have choices and can choose to believe – choose to be strong and slay their Jabberwockies. Theologically, we call this mistaken notion “decision theology.” This is the idea that you can actually choose to believe, receiving Jesus as your Savior. We know from the Scriptures, that this is not true. He has chosen us! Luther rejoices over this in the Catechism: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith” (Small Catechism, Creed, III.)

You have the joy of being in amazing wonder that Jesus does call you to faith. He gives you belief! And not only does He give you faith, but He gives you the faith of a little child! “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it,” says our Savior (Luke 18:17 ESV.)

Through Holy Baptism, His Spirit comes and makes us children of our Heavenly Father. He gifts us with child-like faith and welcomes us into His kingdom. As He plunged us into the mighty waters of the font, Christ Himself brought us into the Wonderland of His Kingdom. Don’t worry that you don’t slay; on the cross He slew the dreaded Jabberwockies of sin and death, and rescued us from the clutches of the devil. At the font, He delivered those gifts to us.

The world thinks that the Bible is full of myths and fairy tales. Many would say we are mad, and that the Scriptures fill our minds with impossible things. To that, we reply with Alice, “Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Yet we don’t even need six! We have the joy that the Holy Spirit has placed the “impossible thing” of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the foundation for our faith.

We also have the joy of continually gathering as His children at His Table. But we do not gather for some mad tea party. Instead, our Lord blesses us with the wonders of His Body and Blood, given and shed for us—and that drives the devil mad!

Thanks be to God that He keeps you forever childlike in the faith. Our crucified and risen Savior will preserve you from losing your muchness! You haven’t lost your muchness at all! Jesus gives you muchness in believing the “impossible things” that He has truly done – and given – for you!